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Film room: Why Jonathan Taylor couldn’t save the Badgers this time around

November 29, 2018

Jonathan Taylor’s heroics saved a University of Wisconsin victory at Purdue last week, and spreading out defenses using 11 personnel became a revelation in giving the nation’s best running back the space he needed to tear the Boilermakers apart.

So why wasn’t the same true in Saturday’s horrifying loss to Minnesota at Camp Randall Stadium?

Well, it kind of was. I wondered on our most recent Red Zone podcast episode how the Golden Gophers and other future opponents may handle Taylor lining up in the shotgun, and whether they’d stick with a base defense until the Badgers proved they could take advantage of the more favorable match-ups that it presents in the passing game.

Minnesota went to nickel right away, however, and UW did take advantage once again.

The Gophers tried to combat this by crashing a safety or slot cornerback down on the strong side, but this formation and play design allows the Badgers to leave the weak-side outside linebacker unblocked. Doing so gives them the extra blocker to take out that added defender, which Jake Ferguson does successfully in all three clips.

As we mentioned in last week’s film room when discussing this topic, Taylor also has the vision and quickness to cut upfield early if he sees a crease. In the second clip above, the inside linebackers over-pursue in anticipation of Taylor breaking off another big run towards the sideline, and he makes them pay by getting vertical almost immediately after taking the handoff.

Even when mistakes were made up front, this play mostly remained successful. A lot goes wrong in the video below. Cole Van Lanen’s unsuccessful in maneuvering his way inside a three-technique defensive lineman, Ferguson leaves the slot corner who crashes towards the line at the snap and then Ferguson and A.J. Taylor both block the same safety when one of them could have potentially taken out the player who ultimately made the tackle.

It still went for a 6-yard gain. This play became a major issue for an opposing defense for the second straight week.

So why didn’t it translate into another flurry of points? The play after the first video you saw was quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s illegal forward pass, which put UW behind the chains and eventually led to a failed fourth-down conversion. The next two videos happened on consecutive plays — right before Deal gave Taylor a breather and Hornibrook threw his second interception. On the next snap after the most recent video shown above, Taylor ripped off another big run on an outside zone from the shotgun, but it was called back for an insignificant hold by A.J. Taylor. Two plays later, A.J. Taylor dropped a wide-open pass on third-and-8.

UW simply shot itself in the foot time after time, and there was nothing Jonathan Taylor or a schematic advantage could do to make up for it. The Badgers didn’t have any other possessions that ended in their own territory until the final play of the third quarter.

Their first snap of the fourth quarter came with just 5:37 remaining, after Minnesota put together its nine-minute, game-killing drive that forced UW to pass the ball in order to catch up. That somewhat leads us into the next section of this week’s film room.

— The Badgers’ inability to stop the run against Minnesota certainly wasn’t a new problem. UW surrendered more than 200 yards on the ground for the third time this season after doing so just twice in the last three years combined.

There may be a misperception, though, that the Badgers’ shortcomings in this area Saturday fall entirely on a young and inexperienced defensive line. While that group did struggle to win the battle up front, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

UW often brought a safety into the box to help fill the gaps. That didn’t always help, as Scott Nelson missed too many tackles when relied upon to step in and make a play.

That last run, of course, sealed the Gophers’ win (if it wasn’t over already).

Minnesota benefited quite a few times from UW’s inability to contain the edge. Take a look at Zack Baun on the Gophers’ first and final touchdown of the day. The first is a fourth-and-1 play where he’s unable to gain leverage or escape his block in time to keep Mohamed Ibrahim from getting around him and running untouched to the end zone. In the second, Baun tries to spin inside when he sees that’s where the play is heading, but that opens up space for Bryce Williams to bounce his run outside.

Bobby April III brought a new philosophy to the outside linebacker room this offseason — a more direct approach where they often attack blockers head-on and play multiple gaps. Players have said they love this fresh, more aggressive mentality, and it can allow them to be playmakers more often. But perhaps it’s time to reevaluate this, or at least tweak their level of responsibility in particular situations.

UW’s run defense thrived in recent years when its outside linebackers never surrendered the edge and funneled ball carriers inside. The Badgers have exposed themselves far too often this year by losing that outside containment.

— Logan Bruss didn’t appear to play quite as well as he did at Purdue, as he missed some blocks in the run game and looked to be at fault for the third-down sack on Hornibrook early in the second quarter.

He should have handed off his initial block to Beau Benzschawel here and taken out the twisting inside linebacker, who came in free and got the initial pressure on Hornibrook.

As I’ve said before, however, I like Bruss’ long-term potential. He’s a redshirt freshman playing his first meaningful snaps at right tackle. It’s a major positive for him to have found a way to gain valuable experience this season.

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